The First Time I Heard Jim Carroll
In the August 2002 issue of GQ (with Vin Diesel on the cover), "Nine writers remember
the first time they heard the music that changed their lives." The nine writers
are Kurt Loder, Eric Bogosian, David Gates, Russell Banks, Junot Diaz, T.C. Boyle,
Joe Jackson, Terrence Rafferty, and . . . waaay back on page 175, Jonathan Lethem.
The summer of 1980,
I was 16 and unpersuasively cool. I listened to the Ramones and clung to a thin
claim of having been "there"--meaning CBGB, which at the time let you in without
an ID. But I meant to be a writer and had begun favoring Talking Heads and Elvis
Costello, music that buffered emotionality in layers of cleverness and metaphor
and postures of alienation. I spent a lot of afternoons at my desk, writing stuff
that wasn't any good. One such day that summer, the deejay on WNEW came on and
announced a debut single "by a New York poet turned rock 'n' roller." I sneered
in advance--this would probably be some flowery singer-songwriter, about as tough
as Billy Joel. Then the deejay dropped the needle on Jim Carroll's "People Who
Died," which by the end of one snarling, anguished chorus had wrecked the walls
of my pretensions. The song was a ticking bomb of rage at loss--They were all
my friends, and they died! Carroll moans, as astonished that he's found a
voice to report it as he is at the gruesome fact of death itself. Though I'd have
to learn the lesson a thousand times again, Carroll's channeled beatnik vulnerability,
shrouded in punk rage, was the first rebuke to my foolish hope that being a writer
could mean skirting my emotions. No, it would always mean ramming straight into
them. Carroll had put me on notice.
The deejay let
the song finish, then immediately played it again: He--and I--was that impressed.
I still am. Nothing else of Carroll's has had that impact on me, but it hardly
matters; "People Who Died" is breaking me open still, and there's room for only
so many songs like that in your life. Even if Carroll had somehow managed a career
that kept that song's impossible promise, punk--or life--isn't always about keeping
the promises you make but daring to make them in the first place. That's what
"People Who Died" knew that I didn't and why it broke my heart twice quickly in
succession, before I'd completely understood it could be broken--and why the song
goes on breaking it now that I've learned.
Jonathan Lethem is the author of Motherless Brooklyn; Amnesia Moon; Gun, with
Occasional Music; and other works. Click on the images below for
more information on Amazon.com.
© 2002 Gentlemen's Quarterly